Tree and field covered in snow on one side and tree and field with green grass and flowers on the other side
Tree and field covered in snow on one side and tree and field with green grass and flowers on the other side

Taking the Bar in February Versus July 

By: Meghan Short, Esq., Managing Director – Product and Customer Experience, Helix Bar Review

You may find yourself spending a winter studying for the February bar exam for many reasons. Maybe it’s out of necessity – you graduated law school in December and need to become licensed ASAP, or you didn’t pass the July exam and are committed to conquering the test the next time around. Perhaps you secured a job where immediate licensure wasn’t necessary and decided to put the test off until February to give yourself more time to prepare. Maybe you had a life commitment that took priority over the July exam. No matter why you find yourself gearing up for February, one thing is certain – the exam experience IS different from July – so let’s make sure you know what to expect!

We’ll begin with the elephant in the room – pass rates. Many graduates are fearful of the February exam because, in most jurisdictions, February pass rates tend to be lower than July pass rates overall. But there are several reasons for this discrepancy – reasons that aren’t at all related to the difficulty of the examination. In fact, most jurisdictions (and certainly the National Conference of Bar Examiners) go to great lengths to equate their exam scores, a process that accounts for the differences in exam difficulty from administration to administration, to ensure that a passing score in July 2022 is equivalent to a passing score in February 2019 and July 2017, etc. The main reason for the discrepancy between February and July bar passage is the fact that one of the most significant predictors of bar success is being able to devote extensive time to bar exam preparation. And the cohort of February exam takers tend to have more external demands on their time when studying. Most winter studiers are either repeat takers or students who completed law school on a part-time basis who don’t have the luxury of being able to take months off from work (or caring for children, etc.) while studying for the bar exam.

So, it’s official, the February bar exam is not harder than July. But the experience of studying for and taking the exam is different in several other ways. If you’re aware of these differences, then you can be prepared for (and even take advantage of) them!

Difference 1: Taking the exam in the winter vs. the summer. In most of the country, there is a big disparity in weather during the bar study period for the July and February exams. Leading up to the test, many find it easier to spend long hours in a windowless library preparing for test day when it’s cold and grey outside. The temptations of fun in the sun just don’t exist when you’re studying for the February exam. However, come exam day, winter weather has been known to make for treacherous travel to the testing site, so plan to ensure that you arrive at your location safely with plenty of time to spare if you’re testing in a winter wonderland.

Difference 2: Your study schedule may need to be adjusted for holiday hours. The typical 10-week bar prep schedule for the February exam begins in early December and, if you’re trying to fit roughly 400 hours of study into 10 weeks, it means you’re not going to be able to take a lot of time off for holiday celebrations with friends and family. If you can, it makes sense to start bar prep a little sooner than 10 weeks out to give yourself a buffer for those days when you want to take a break to be with your people, eat copious amounts of sweet treats, and (most importantly) NOT think about the bar exam. (Helix UBE and Helix California offer 12, 16, and 20-week Sample Study Schedules as alternatives to the 10-week plan.)

Difference 3: On exam day, there will be far fewer people in the room. One of the most significant distinctions between the February and July bar exam-taking experiences is the number of applicants. On any given year, over 60% of the total number of bar takers sit for the July exam. Depending on the jurisdiction, the numbers sitting for the February test can be very small. (And, if you’re in Delaware – don’t plan on taking the exam in February, because the state only offers a July bar exam!) These small numbers can be both a blessing and a curse. It can feel less intimidating and more intimate to take the exam in February. There are less distractions for those who are easily thrown off by sounds in a room, and the check-in process is more streamlined. But, in large jurisdictions that offer multiple testing locations across the state in July, there may be fewer options for February takers, which can mean that you might have to travel farther to take the test.

Difference 4: Fewer takers = faster results! In most cases, one of the biggest benefits of sitting for the February bar exam is that you won’t have to wait as long to receive your results. The reason is simple – with fewer essays and performance tests to read, the graders (who are all licensed attorneys with full-time legal jobs) can move through the stack faster.

Now that you know how the February exam experience is different – and in some ways even better – than the July bar exam, it’s time to get studying! Grab a study carrel in your library or a cozy nook at your local coffee shop and pass the winter hours away memorizing rules, perfecting your HRAC, and answering hundreds of practice multiple choice questions. When the ground thaws and the first daffodils start to pop up, you’ll get your bar results. And then it will be time to enjoy your summer while everyone else is studying for the bar exam!